Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Memorandum submitted by Emma Sangster (PR 122)

Part 3: Parliament Square Garden and surrounding area

1. As a campaigner on peace issues, I have taken an interest in legislation governing the right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament from the time when the measures restricting protest were proposed in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, in 2005, through the various proposals that have been put forward to replace it since the repeal of sections 132-138 became inevitable.

2. Sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) were rushed through Parliament in order to deal with a particular situation, namely the protest of Brian Haw. The proposals contained in this Bill are also formulated to deal with the very same target and are also being rushed through Parliament – in time to take effect for the Royal Wedding.

3. Given the central importance of this site for people to express their concerns about issues of great importance to them, there should be no laws put in place that inhibit people unnecessarily from taking up their right to free assembly and free expression or that create uncertainty about what will happen to them if they do. The ‘chilling effect’ that SOCPA had on protest must not be repeated. However, as with SOCPA, there are concerns about the proportionality of the measures contained in this Bill, and the accountability of those who will carry them out, as well as a worrying lack of clarity as to how they will work in practice.

The repeal of s132-138 SOCPA… and more

4. This repeal is welcome and overdue. As someone who has been convicted for taking part in a protest without authorisation from the police, I would like to suggest that those who have been prosecuted under the legislation, and whose criminal convictions will last far longer than the law itself, should have their sentences quashed.

5. Since the restrictions on protest around Parliament were introduced in 2005, there is evidence that police forces elsewhere in the country have embraced the central concept of SOCPA – that unauthorised protest is not legal. For example, a campaign by the police in Liverpool to remove political groups from the centre of the city appears to have been greatly but erroneously influenced by the SOCPA regime of authorisation  (1). I hope that, with the repeal of s132-138, the government will send out a clear message that, across the country, those organising or taking part in static demonstrations do not need to get permission from the police.

6. Section 128 of SOCPA, which restricts protest at ‘designated sites’ also needs to be repealed. In their report of 2009, ‘Demonstrating respect for rights? A human rights approach to policing protest’, the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated that, "we do not have confidence that section 128 has been implemented in a manner compatible with Convention rights, or that appropriate safeguards are in place to secure compatibility. We recommend that section 128(3)(c) be amended to permit the Home Secretary to designate sites on the grounds of national security only where it is necessary to do so." The Freedom Bill drafted by the Liberal Democrats in 2009 included the complete repeal of s128 of SOCPA (2).


Concerns about the proposed laws

7. These proposals would allow for adirection’ to be made by any 'authorised officer' for a person to stop a 'prohibited activity' relating to sleeping equipment, tents or structures or amplified noise in the 'controlled area' of Parliament Square. The 'direction' can be given orally by a single officer and would be effective immediately. It can last for up to 3 months. Failure to comply can lead to a criminal conviction and a heavy fine.

8. Lack of accountability

Powers to give a 'direction' will extend to any ‘authorised officer’. This includes employees of local authorities or anyone else who has been authorised. This opens the door for anyone, so long as they are ‘authorised’ to order members of the public about with no redress. How will an 'authorised officer' be identified? How will such 'authorised officers' be held accountable for their actions? If someone has been dealt with unfairly, what means will they have to challenge it?

9. Alarming use of ‘reasonable force’

The legislation will allow for any ‘authorised officer’ to use ‘reasonable force’. Not only is the idea that someone could, for example, be manhandled out of Parliament Square, extremely alarming but this will be legitimised in the eyes of the law. This is a worrying development in the policing of protests and other pubic order situations.

10. How will a judgement to make a 'direction' be made?

It seems very likely that these new powers are more likely to be used on some people than others. Political protesters will be judged under them but what about those camping out to see the Royal Wedding? One of the reasons that SOCPA lost credibility was that the law was enforced in a biased way – a blind eye was turned to some while others were heavily targeted and it appeared that the law was being used for political purposes.

11. How will the judgement to make a 'direction' be made? Will each person be searched to check they are not carrying a sleeping bag? How will homeless people be dealt with? There is no provision within the proposed legislation for anyone to challenge what will in effect be an on-the-spot injunction.

12. Undemocratic restrictions on the use of loudhailers etc.

The wording of the legislation suggests that in order for a demonstration to use any form of amplified noise, they will have to apply to the local authority at least 21 days in advance. This timescale is very unrealistic for most demonstrations and will not allow for those which happen in response to current events to benefit from having amplification, which can be important in organisational terms. More importantly it will deny protesters the ability to get their message across, have speakers, etc, which is what demonstrations are all about. This is a serious curb on freedom of expression.

13. Furthermore, permission for amplified noise can be withdrawn or varied at any time, which would lead to unworkable situations on the ground with undue uncertainty for organisers. There are also questions about how the judgement about whether or not to grant permission will be made by the local authority and what criteria will be used?

14. Unreasonable punishment

If a court convicts someone of failing to comply with a ‘direction’, they can make an order against that person which will stop them returning to the area for a period of any length. A fine of up to £5000 can also be imposed. These are very severe punishments for an 'offence' which could potentially be as minor as carrying a sleeping bag and then failing to comply with the word of an ‘officer’.

15. Given that a 'direction' can be made orally by a single officer, the likelihood of confusion and misunderstanding on the ground seems high, with people not understanding the significance of the order. Not only can these situations lead to the person being criminalised, but they can receive a heavy sentence as well.

No justification

16. The explanatory notes to this proposed legislation provide no justification for its introduction. There is no explanation as to why protestors, or anyone else, should not be able to stay overnight in Parliament Square, especially given the other laws that govern protest and the bylaws that are in place in the 'controlled area'. Clearly the target is the protest of Brian Haw and other protesters who have been in Parliament Square for some time. It is not proportionate that measures aimed at dealing with a single instance are put in place permanently for all situations at all times.

Notes

1. Correspondence from a Merseyside Police sergeant to campaigners: 'Any unauthorised protests will be investigated and legislation applied. I am sure you see the merits of a regularly organised society, which benefits the residents and visitors to the city. An environment where any group of people are allowed to conduct random demonstrations or protests without control or organisation can quickly escalate to anarchy.'
 http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Taking-back-the-streets/

2. http://www.libdems.org.uk/siteFiles/resources/PDF/The_Freedom_Bill.pdf

February 2011